Overcoming the Winter Blues

From the Headmaster's Desk, December 4, 2017

I know that Mr Thomas was already in full cheerful Christmas mode back in November, but I have always found this to be the most challenging time of year. The days get shorter and colder, and I find myself walking into work in the dark, as I did this morning. Added to this, our boiler broke down yesterday, so the Headmaster’s House was bitterly cold this morning. My study is large and beautiful, but it has been cold in the mornings as well – down to 13 degrees when I arrived this morning. And then the sun sets before lessons even finish this time of year, so it is cold and dark in the evenings as well.

I sometimes feel a sort of winter blues this time of year, but this is not just me – it is a medical condition recognised by the NHS and health professionals. It is called ‘seasonal affective disorder’, or just SAD – a rather fitting acronym.

Typically, it is most severe in winter months and then disappears usually by March. Unsurprisingly, almost a third of adults experience some symptoms of SAD in the winter. As for residents in sunny Florida, it is just 1%.

The exact cause of SAD is not fully understood, but it is normally linked to reduced exposure to sunlight. Scientists believe that this lack of proper sunlight can inhibit proper brain functioning. So much darkness can cause our brains to produce more melatonin, the chemical that makes you feel sleepy. So you may find yourself being regularly groggy this time of year.

Lack of sunlight can also lead to less serotonin, which is a chemical that affects your mood, well being and happiness. Less sunlight can mean less of this chemical, making us feel, well, a bit sad.

Fortunately, scientists and doctors also have simple advice for us. In fact, the main treatment for SAD could not be more straightforward: doctors recommend that you go outside and get as much natural sunlight as possible. So, if you are feeling a bit glum, the best medicine is simply a walk at lunchtime, enjoying that winter sun.

There are two other simple tips for lifting one’s mood:
Get moving! When people move, even just a little bit, they tend to be happier than when they are motionless. The benefits of exercise to improve mood are well-documented, but behaviour scientists have shown that it does not have to be rigorous activity to lift your spirits. Simply walking can result in meaningful improvements to mental health, and physical changes in the brain. Walking in nature is particularly uplifting, so do enjoy the outdoor space we have here at Holme Park.

My final bit of advice for those of you who are feeling a bit glum is to talk to someone about it. As the saying goes, ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’.

This is not just a cheesy quotation or banal platitude. There is scientific research that shows the best way to reduce your stress levels is to share your feelings with someone else. This lightens the load of your problems, calms you, and allows you to be more productive. If you don’t have a friend to talk to? Well then, pretend. Seriously – medical professionals say that if you are feeling negative about yourself, ask yourself what advice a good friend would give you, and apply that advice to yourself. This can be helpful in cheering you up, and allowing you to gain some perspective.

So, to summarise, if you are feeling a bit glum this time of year, don’t worry; about a third of the population also finds these dark days less fun. But the solutions are simple – get outside when you can, exercise and then talk to a friend.

And if all that fails, then head to the Second Master’s study and watch him smiling and dancing along to his favourite Christmas melodies – that will surely make you smile.

Have a good week, and stay positive.

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